The novel, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" by Laurence Sterne is in a very capacious form of writing. It has the capacity to embrace everything which we cannot do in poetry as it’s a limited form of writing. An accidental meeting led Sterne's going up to London. Tristram Shandy is a portrait of Laurence Sterne in many different ways. As a novel, Tristram Shandy is incomplete but by Sterne’s standards, the question of completeness or incompleteness is irrelevant. His narrative texture has harmony and consistency and his basic premises always included the possibility of infinite digression and expansion.
Sterne’s way of writing also forces the reader to be actively engaged in the reading process because of the simultaneous acts of creation and narration. This novel blurs the difference between the middle class and upper class, it talks about multiple things, unconventionality in language, ideas. It is very unconventional in terms of what a novel does. It tries to reexamine the idea between class and form. There is monologue also which is carried out throughout the novel, unlike other Victorian books. Communication and misunderstandings are one of the themes in the novel.
The opening lines of the novel are very peculiar. The word 'humor' recurring throughout the novel. There is an absence of conversation or dialogue. This novel talks about individual self but Victorian talked about 'universality' – truth universally acknowledged.
The novel Tristram Shandy is not for middle-class people as it is difficult to understand for nobility or aristocrats. It doesn’t operate in this novel as it does in other Victorian novels. Laurence was very ambiguous to know whether the middle class exists there or not. On the one hand, there is the extreme explanation and on the other it’s empty. The blank pages in the book is a pause. There is no order in the novel that’s why it’s sometimes known as “order in disorder”. Although it seems as the ordered text as it has nine volumes in the form of a novel but there is a lot of disorder caused by many points of view, the fact that character says something freely.
Long interior monologue performed by each character but we never understand what happens in real, it only gives us feelings and impressions. The novel also makes use of John Locke’s theories of empiricism, Locke was the philosopher to the eighteenth century because his Essay Concerning Human Understanding published in 1690, seemed to have laid the foundation of a new and empirical understanding of human psychology.
A literary critic William Hazlitt, comments on the Stern’s style of writing by highlighting that his characters are intellectual and inventive, like Richardson’s, but totally opposite in the execution. The one is made out by continuity, and patient repetition of touches: the others, by glancing transitions and graceful apposition. His style is equally different from Richardson’s: it is at times the most rapid, the happiest, the most idiomatic of any that is to be found. It is the pure essence of English conversational style. His works consist only of fragments of brilliant passages. His wit is poignant, though artificial. From the point of view of Sterne’s characterization, the important thing is that his novelistic portrayal of Toby and Walter is not limited to any single or simple point of view.
The digressions in the narrative are one of the most demanding section for the readers. William Bowman Piper classified the digression as explanatory, opinionative and interlude. He explains that “many of Tristram’s digressions have value for his reader both as explanation and opinion: they explained a Shandy event and suggest a lesson or example of general applicability”. For the readers of the novel, it appears relevant in hindsight.
The digressions prove to be a weighty addition in terms of adding psychological depth and development to the characters. The novel is constructed in such a manner that a passive reader will find no pleasure in the text as it demands the engagement of readers throughout the novel. By not engaging in the act of creation and narration, the reader will never progress in the narrative and will continuously be stuck at the beginning of the novel.
As we all are personality experts nowadays, the characters of Tristram Shandy are probably the most accessible and attractive aspect of the book for modern readers. The learned wit in Tristram Shandy is not it’s learnedness as such, but merely that Sterne’s fictional world should be hospitable to the whole intellectual tradition of the past. Sterne is more purely a comic writer and the prevailing temper of the eighteenth century was considerably more commonsensical, more hostile to flights of imagination or deductive argument than that of preceding centuries. Sterne’s mode of narration works in the same direction since the intellectual preoccupations of his characters are undercut by the everyday realities of their context. From the point of view of literary history, the contrast between the inherent unreality of Walter’s hypothesis, and the wholly convincing way in which they affect the personality of Walter and the life of those around him is the result of a contrast between the two very different modes of writing: between the ancient tradition of learning wit and the newer model of realistic fiction.
Sterne had also used the technique of allusions and by leaving the passages incomplete, leaving blank pages can also be interpreted as to enhance imagination and it can also interrupt the usual textual continuity. The idea of emerging cosmopolitan space as it is not a poetic space like Johnson. The disruption and borrowing are unique in its own way. Readers become as important as the writer as it carries on the continuity of the text. The text becomes the central domain to derive the meaning that we are looking for. Meaning is not invisible but it involves readers to derive the meaning, they play a major role in reading the novel. There is a triangular formation of author-reader and some absent voices. Derrida highlights that “Nothing exists outside the text”. The readers play a major role in the whole novel.